Saving Becca

One year in a family’s battle against cancer

A few days later, Becca sits in the pulmonologist’s waiting room while, in the office, the doctor gives Bob and Sue the stunning news: Becca has a rare form of Ewing’s sarcoma, a bone cancer named for a the pathologist at Johns Hopkins University who first discovered it. The tumor is forming on the back of one of Becca’s “floating” ribs — the four bones in the lower rib cage that aren’t attached to the sternum — and is beginning to push into the chest cavity. Her rib has pressed forward as a result.

The doctor waits a moment for the news to sink in. Bob and Sue have gone white-faced. They are gently offered water.

“This can’t be happening,” Sue says, her hand clutching Bob’s. “Are you sure you have the right test results? Are you sure they’re Becca’s?” She doesn’t recognize her own voice. It sounds ragged, nothing like her usual unflappable one.

“What’s the prognosis?” Bob croaks out. “What do we do from here?”

The doctor tells them the protruding rib is a fortunate signal. Some Ewing’s tumors grow deep into the chest cavity and aren’t discovered until other symptoms, such as pain and shortness of breath, appear. By then, the tumor can have spread elsewhere. Still, Becca needs immediate and aggressive treatment — or she’ll die.

The doctor recommends they go to Johns Hopkins in Baltimore for an opinion about protocol and prognosis. The sooner, the better.

“Of course, of course. We’ll do anything,” Bob says quickly, his methodical, organized mind kicking into high gear. This is a busy time at work, but his partner can run things while he and Sue take Becca to Maryland. Maybe a neighbor can watch Bobby. The thought of breaking the news to his son makes him gulp for breath. “My God, Sue,” he says. “Becca…”

The doctor gives them time alone while she fetches Becca. Sue can’t stop shaking. A doctor has just told her that her firstborn child, who looks great and feels fine, has a disease that will kill her if they don’t do something, right now.

“This cannot be happening,” she says again and again. “I feel like I’m dying.”

By the time Becca enters the room, they’ve pulled themselves together enough to put on a reassuring front. But Becca’s too smart for that. She knows instantly this is something major. The doctor gives her the news. Becca’s mouth drops open and stays that way for a long while before she blinks and speaks.

Can-cer?” she says in her agog-adolescent dialect. Her brown eyes flash from Sue to Bob and back again. “I have can-cer?” She starts to laugh, the ubiquitous teenage avowal of disbelief. “Wow,” she says, her one-word response summoning up all it means to be 13 and toe-to-toe with your own mortality. She asks if she’ll die. The doctor explains once again how lucky it is that the rib stuck out the way it did. The prognosis is serious, but Becca has a lot going for her. She’s healthy, there are new protocols for treating Ewing’s sarcoma, and Johns Hopkins is close enough hat Becca can be seen by experts in her type of tumor.